Association for Democratic Reform’s (ADR’s) analysis of candidates’ self-sworn affidavits in the ongoing general polls show that, in 2019, 19% of the candidates analysed face criminal charges, against 17% in 2014 and 15% in 2009.
There is clearly a trend of increasing criminality in politics—even if the usual caveats about politically motivated charges apply, there is no denying that this is portentous for India’s democracy in the long run. Association for Democratic Reform’s (ADR’s) analysis of candidates’ self-sworn affidavits in the ongoing general polls show that, in 2019, 19% of the candidates analysed face criminal charges, against 17% in 2014 and 15% in 2009. What’s worse, this trend also holds for candidates facing serious criminal charges that include crimes against women, assault, murder, etc—this election, 13% of the candidates face such charges, against 11% in 2014 and 8% in 2009. From the left to the right, political parties have not shied away from fielding more candidates facing criminal charges than before—40% of the ruling BJP’s candidates face criminal cases (33% in 2014 and 27% in 2009), the Congress clocks 39% (28% in 2014 and 27% in 2009), while 58% of the candidates of the CPM, which has in fray only a fraction of the absolute number of candidates fielded by the BJP and Congress, face criminal charges. In the outgoing Lok Sabha, 30% of the members faced criminal charges, with 14% facing serious ones.
These figures no longer shock—what does is, despite so-called systemic overhauls, criminalisation of politics hasn’t been curbed meaningfully. While the Representation of the People Act bars criminally-convicted lawmakers from contesting elections for a certain number of years, the Supreme Court, in Lily Thomas vs Union of India (2013), brought in immediate disqualification upon conviction, fixing the appeals loophole in debarring criminal MPs/MLAs. Even then, with trials dragging on for years, the SC, in 2014, had to order that trials against lawmakers be completed within a year of charges being framed. The government set up 12 special courts in 2017 to fast-track such trials. This, again, wasn’t of much avail—of 3,884 cases against lawmakers, guilty judgments were pronounced in 38 and 560 saw acquittals, the Centre had informed the SC on September 11 last year. The Election Commission of India has now made it mandatory for candidates with criminal cases to advertise these details in popular newspapers and TV channels. But, there are ways to take the bite out of the ECI’s directive—like advertising on TV at a time-slot when viewership is low or using the smallest ad space possible or mentioning only IPC/CrPC sections. Unless political parties fix selection of candidates—Milan Vaishnav, in When Crime Pays, shows that a candidate with criminal charges stood nearly three times greater a chance of winning than a clean candidate—muscle power will continue to trump clean, responsive politics.
The ADR analysis also highlights a rising tendency of parties to field rich candidates—in fact, resource rich states like many from the North East, Goa, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Odisha, Jharkhand fielded a higher proportion of rich candidates vis-a-vis developed, but less recource-rich states like Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat. While this needs to be studied further, a correlation between natural resource availability, political power and money power can’t be ignored.